So Donald Trump set the Internet ablaze with his creation of a new word:
The trouble began, as it so often does, on Twitter, in the early minutes of Wednesday morning. Mr. Trump had something to say. Kind of.
“Despite the constant negative press covfefe,” the Twitter post began, at 12:06 a.m., from @realDonaldTrump, the irrepressible internal monologue of his presidency.
And that was that.
A minute passed. Then another. Then five.
Surely he would delete the message.
Ten. Twenty. It was nearly 12:30 a.m.
Forty minutes. An hour. The questions mounted.
Had the president’s lawyers, so eager to curb his stream-of-consciousness missives, tackled the commander in chief under the cover of night?
Perhaps, some worried aloud, Mr. Trump had experienced a medical episode a quarter of the way through his 140 characters.
Or maybe he had simply gazed upon his work, paused and thought: “Yes. Nailed it.”
No one at the White House could immediately be reached for comment overnight.
In the end, it didn’t mean what you thought it did:
Mr. Alnaemi said the word “covfefe” was “something meaningless” in Arabic, a language that Mr. Trump, who campaigned on a pledge to ban Muslims from the United States, has never publicly claimed to speak.
There is no standardized method for rendering Arabic words in Latin script, but the professor said if Mr. Trump had wanted to write “I will stand up” in Arabic he would have written something like “saqef” or “sawfa aqef.”
“Honestly when I heard that some writers thought Trump was speaking Arabic I said to myself, ‘Wow, they know Arabic more than I do,’” Mr. Alnaemi, who was born and raised in Iraq, said. “Because I cannot think of a word that would mean the equivalent of ‘covfefe.’”
Like many new words, it seems to have taken on a life of its own. It’s an all-purpose word, good for all occasions. And it continues a linguistic tradition:
According to the “Oxford English Dictionary”, there are at least 350 words in English dictionaries (most of them thankfully quite obscure) that owe their existence purely to typographical errors or other misrenderings.
There are many more words, often in quite common use, that have arisen over time due to mishearings (e.g. shamefaced from the original shamefast, penthouse from pentice, sweetheart from sweetard, buttonhole from button-hold, etc).
Mrs. Mapalprop, a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play “The Rivals”, was famous for her “malapropisms” like illiterate, reprehend, etc, but these never gained common currency. Likewise, it seems unlikely that “Bushisms” (named for US President Bush’s unfortunate tendency to mangle the language) like misunderestimate, or Sarah Palin’s refudiate will ever become part of the everyday language, although there are many who would argue that they deserve to.
Many misused words (as opposed to newly-coined words) have, for better or worse, become so widely used in their new context that they may be considered to be generally accepted, particularly in the USA, although many strict grammarians insist on their distinctness (e.g. alternate to mean alternative, momentarily to mean presently, disinterested to mean uninterested, i.e. to mean e.g., flaunt to mean flout, historic to mean historical, imply to mean infer, etc).
So, what’s in a word? Maybe it really does mean what you think it means-then again, maybe not…